Topsail Island in North Carolina is filled with beautiful beaches, laid back towns, and fun activities for the whole family. This is the vacation you go on when you want to unplug and just enjoy some family time. You’ll love strolling down the wide beaches, visiting Surf City NC, learning the islands military history, and enjoying the Topsail Island restaurants. Use this guide on the Best Things to Do on Topsail Island NC to be ready for an amazing beach vacation!
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Topsail Island NC | Best Things to Do & See
General Information about Topsail Island
Topsail (pronounced Tops’l) is made up of three communities on a 26-mile long island – North Topsail Beach is on the north end, Surf City is in the middle, and the southernmost part of the island is Topsail Beach. The largest of the communities is Surf City where you will find most of the restaurants and shops. The island has a rich history from Pirates hiding out in the Sound to producing missiles in WWII. These both add to the mystery and allure of the island.
Access to the island is limited as there are only two bridges, the Surf City Bridge in the middle of the island and Island Drive in North Topsail Island. The Surf City Bridge will take you to the downtown area of Surf City. Traffic was fairly heavy on the bridges on Saturdays when people are checking in and out of their vacation rentals, but the other days of the week seemed to be fine.
Topsail Beach NC
The highlight of your visit will be playing in the surf at the beaches. The island has very few hotels so there are no crowds on the beaches even in high season. This reason alone makes it one of the best beaches on the east coast.
You will find many public access points with bridges over the sand dunes to access the beach. Parking for the beaches is limited as there are mostly homes dotting the coast. However, there are a few scattered small public parking lots with bathrooms if you would like to drive over for the day.
The beaches are all public and you can walk for miles. Make sure to bring anything you will need with you as there is nowhere to buy food or accessories on the beach. We brought chairs, blankets, sand toys, a cooler, and boogie boards. Look below to find my favorite beach chair. You can wear it as a backpack, it has a cooler, a towel bar, and a place to keep your cell phone. It’s pretty awesome. Get some more ideas of what you need for your beach day and cool beach hacks in my 20 Beach Hacks to Survive a Family Beach Day.
The waves on the Atlantic Ocean can get pretty big so make sure to bring boogie boards and ride the waves. This was our kids’ favorite part of the trip! I will also note that the waves can get pretty strong so stay close to little ones.
Tip: Each public access area to the beach has a number on a small blue sign. Make sure to look at this number so that if you take a walk on the beach, you remember where you need to return. Above is a picture with the number.
Sound Side Beach Access
If you want calmer water for little kids, head to the southwest end of the island. Here you will find a small beach on the sound side with no waves. This beach was much easier for younger children to swim. There is a little parking lot and porta-potties but no other facilities. The area is called Topsail Beach Sound Side Access Site # 1 and is a little hard to find.
Directions: Take S. Anderson Boulevard (main road on the island) until it ends and turn left on Trout Avenue. Next, take a right on Ocean Boulevard and go three streets to Godwin Avenue where you will turn right followed by a left turn on Shoreline Drive. You should run right into the parking lot.
Surf City NC
The biggest town on the island is Surf City, NC. Here you will find restaurants, shops, and a small grocery store. When you want to get out and find a little entertainment, this is the area to go on the island. You will also find the Surf City Pier for fishing and Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue. The city spans both the island and part of the mainland directly across the bridge.
Turtle Sanctuary Topsail Island
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is a must-visit with kids when you come to Topsail Island. It is located on the mainland of Surf City but only a short drive from the island. The sanctuary rescues sea turtles found hurt on the island and in the surrounding areas.
When you arrive, volunteers are located along several displays to teach you about different types of sea turtles, how they live, and the challenges they face. The displays and hands-on items to touch really helped keep our kids engaged. After the displays, you can peak into the hospital area and see the most injured turtles in rehabilitation. Then at the end of the tour, you’ll walk through where the turtles are housed and hear from more volunteers on the lives of specific turtles waiting to be released from the facility. We learned a ton about sea turtles and really enjoyed watching them swim.
Tip: The facility is only open to the public limited times a day and because of this, it can get pretty crowded in season. Be prepared to wait outside in a line so dress appropriately to wait in the heat. We were told Tuesday & Thursday were the busiest days and Saturday was the slowest day as it’s the day people are checking in and out of their rentals. Check here for visiting hours.
There was a food truck selling snow cones in the parking lot when we were there to cool you off. The staff was also handing out umbrellas for the sun. It really was a fun visit so don’t let the crowds keep you from going, it was definitely worth it.
Address: 302 Tortuga Lane, Surf City
Related Article – 10 Awesome Things to Do in Wilmington NC
Missiles and More Museum
Did you know that Topsail Island was the site of a top-secret Navy Program called Operation Bumblebee? It was the Navy’s secret guided missiles testing program from 1946 to 1948 which was conducted throughout the island. Learn all about this top-secret program in exhibits at the museum.
You’ll also learn about the rest of history and nature on the island. Find out about the pirates that hid in the coves around Topsail. The Women Air-Force Service Pilots who served in the Navy right on Topsail Island during the war. The history of the Osprey Helicopter developed in this area and how it works. Plus find out about the Barrier Island and how Topsail came to be. There are lots of knowledgeable docents to answer any questions you may have about Topsail as you stroll around.
Kids will love the hands-on area in the Barrier Island exhibit and finding out how the pirates lived in the area, including Blackbeard. At the end, kids can dig through the sand to find hidden shark teeth. Kids will get a sheet with pictures of different shark teeth to look for in the sandpit. Our kids really enjoyed this part!
Plan to spend about an hour exploring this local museum. It has free admission, they just ask for a donation. They do have limited hours so make sure to check their schedule before you go. Missile & More Museum
Address: Historical Assembly Building, 720 Channel Boulevard, Topsail Beach
Summer Aquarium Program
The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher Outreach program hosts educational talks about different sea animals once a week in the summer at the Missile Museum. Each week in the summer is a different sea creature such as turtles, snakes, lizards, and hermit crabs. Families can attend the one-hour educational program and at the end, kids get to touch the animals. The docent does a really good job of keeping the kids engaged during the discussions. The cost is a donation of $1.00 per child. To get dates and times, check out the Topsail Beach NC Events Page.
Consider combining this program with your visit to the Missile & More Museum.
Address: Historical Assembly Building, 720 Channel Boulevard, Topsail Beach
The Towers of Topsail
You will see tall concrete structures as you drive along the coast of Topsail Island. These are the remnants of Operation Bumblebee on the Island. The towers were used to observe the missile launches. There are seven structures left although a few have been incorporated into homes.
It was a fun game with the kids to try and spot a tower as we drove. Unfortunately, you cannot go into any of the towers as they are all privately owned. But it’s still fun to get a glimpse into the history of the island as you drive around. You can find the location in this article on Topsail Towers.
Day Trip to Wilmington, NC
Want to get off the island and do a little exploring? We spent a fun day in nearby Wilmington. This historic city is located on the Cape Fear River and has tons of things to do. Start out in downtown where you can learn about the history of the area on a horse & carriage ride, walk the cobblestone streets, and stroll through the Riverwalk to find shops and restaurants.
Next, head over to the Battleship North Carolina and explore a real WWII battleship. This was a really cool stop for the whole family. Then spend the afternoon touring the many museums in town. The kids will love playing and learning about the area in the Wilmington Children’s Museum, Cape Fear Museum, and Wilmington Railroad Museum. A visit to Wilmington is a great way to break up your days at the beaches on Topsail.
Find out everything you need to know about visiting Wilmington in my article 10 Amazing Things to Do in Wilmington With Kids.
A fun activity with the kids is to go fishing while on the island. There are three piers where you can fish on Topsail, one located on each of the three towns on the island. There is a fee to fish but it also covers a fishing permit to fish from the pier, which is nice. The amenities the piers offer are a place to rent gear, bait and tackle shop, fish cleaning station, snack stand, and restrooms. This was great because you didn’t have to pack your fishing poles.
If you would like to just walk down the pier there is a one dollar fee per person to enter the pier. We thought that was odd but if you think of all the hurricanes and the cost to rebuild a pier, this makes sense.
Rent a Kayak or Paddle Board
The sound side is a perfect spot for kayaking or paddleboarding. You’ll find flat water and calm conditions which makes it perfect for a day to explore the island. You could bring your own board or there are several places on the island to rent boards.
There is also the option of taking a guided kayaking tour. You can find a few companies that offer this option which I think would be great for a family. Here is one I found but unfortunately we ran out of time to try. Topsail Beach Kayak & SUP Tours.
You will find several small playgrounds around the island.
Southside Park in Surf City is located on the sound side of the island and has a fun playground for the kids plus you can watch the boats go by in the water. There is also a wooden boardwalk to take a stroll and get a better view of the water. Keep your eyes out for dolphins, too. In the summer, this where the local summer concerts are held.
Address: 517 Roland Avenue, Surf City
North Topsail Beach Town Park – There is a lot to do in this park. A brand new tot lot is being installed for the kids. You will find a nature trail, kayak launch, as well as basketball, tennis and volleyball courts. Plus, there is a shelter and charcoal-ready grills.
Address: 465 New River Inlet Road, North Topsail Beach
Nelva R. Albury Recreation Area – This is the best playground we found on the island! It’s located just a little bit north of downtown Surf City. There is also access to the beach, a small parking lot, and accessible bathrooms. Perfect stop before or after heading to dinner in Surf City.
Address: 213 Broadway Street, Surf City
Who doesn’t love a little mini golf on vacation? There is one mini golf course on the island and one on the mainland not far over the bridge in Surf City.
Patio Playground – This is the activity center for the town of Topsail Beach. It has mini golf, a small arcade, and ice cream. It’s a little bit run down but still fun when you need a break from the beach.
Address: 807 S Anderson Boulevard, Topsail Beach
Shipwreak Point Golf – Located just over the bridge on the mainland in Surf City. This is a little nicer mini golf location. It has two courses with a pirate and ocean theme. This would be a great stop after going to the turtle sanctuary as they are both close by each other.
Address: 13705 NC-50, Surf City
Topsail Beach Roller Rink
Need some indoor fun at night? Head to Topsail Beach Roller Rink. It’s located above the post office in the town of Topsail Beach. They have seasonal hours so make sure to check their website before you go.
Address: 714 South Anderson Boulevard, Topsail Beach
Restaurants on the island are small. If you have a large group, I would see if they will take reservations. If not, head over early during the season to get seats. People will be lined up when the restaurants open up.
You will find several local restaurants to choose in Downtown Surf City. We had a great dinner at Daddy Mac’s Beach Grill. They had a view of the ocean and kids’ meals, plus some great seafood dishes. Our family also enjoyed eating at Buddy’s Crabhouse and Shaka Taco.
Another fun idea that we ran out of time to try is the Topsail Steamer. They make steam pots filled with local fish and potatoes for you to take back to your rental house and cook on your stove. A super easy idea if you want a night at home to relax but don’t want to cook.
The other option is to head off the island to Surf City mainland. There are bigger restaurants and some chains if your kids need some familiar food.
On the island, you will only find one small grocery store called Surf City IGA. It has a limited amount of grocery items but a good place if you want to pick up something quick. I would suggest before you get onto the island shopping at Publix, Walmart, or Food Lion in mainland Surf City. This is where you will be able to find all the food you need for your stay on Topsail.
Final Tips for Topsail Island
- The bridge to Topsail gets lots of traffic on Saturdays when people are leaving and going to check into their rental homes.
- There are cheaper souvenir shops in Surf City on the Mainland. There are also two large souvenir shops on Surf City in Topsail, we just found them a little more expensive.
- Don’t forget to walk around the cute shops in Downtown Surf City on the Island.
- Remember to pack beach umbrellas, chairs, beach blankets, and sand toys for the beach. Here are some cool Beach Hacks for families.
- Don’t forget to take a look at the beach access number so that you remember which spot to return at the end of your beach day.
Here are a few more beach items we used while on Topsail Island. We really loved this beach wagon that we used to pull all of our chairs, boogie boards, and beach bags from the rental house.
Are you now ready for an amazing family vacation to Topsail Island NC? With so many fun things to do on Topsail Island you are bound to have a great time. Do you have any questions? Leave them in the comments. I love to hear from my readers.
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Related Article – 10 Awesome Things to Do in Wilmington and Ultimate Guide to Battleship North Carolina
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